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2 Are Charged With Murder in Dorm Fire That Killed 3 in 2000

The men are accused of setting a blaze at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. Parents and sister of a suspect are charged with hindering inquiry.

June 13, 2003|John J. Goldman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — A Seton Hall University student and his former classmate have been charged with murder and arson in connection with a predawn fire in their dormitory 3 1/2 years ago that killed three students and injured 53 others, authorities said Thursday.

Defendants Joseph T. Lepore and Sean Ryan, both 21, were arrested Wednesday after being indicted by an Essex County, N.J., grand jury.

They started a fire in a third-floor lounge in Boland Hall that ignited a couch containing flammable foam, acting Essex County Prosecutor Donald Campolo said at a news conference Thursday in Newark. Dense, highly toxic smoke spread throughout the dorm in South Orange, N.J., while most of its 600 residents were sleeping, prosecutors said. Undergraduates, some of them screaming, fled into the bitterly cold night.

Lepore's father, mother and sister were charged with hindering the investigation. Another student, Santino Cataldo, 21, was charged with witness tampering, obstruction and conspiracy.

No Sprinkler System

When the blaze occurred on Jan. 19, 2000, authorities said some students delayed leaving the residence hall because a series of false alarms had lulled them into a sense of security.

The 48-year-old building did not have a sprinkler system. It was constructed before sprinklers were required.

"Joseph T. Lepore and Sean Ryan purposely started a fire thereby recklessly placing other persons in danger of death or bodily injury," the 62-count indictment charged.

In a separate action, the grand jury recommended that New Jersey's Legislature pass mandatory standards for furniture flammability.

The indictment alleged that Lepore's parents, Joseph E. Lepore, 58, and Maria, 55, and their daughter Lauren, 24, hindered the prosecution and committed conspiracy. Lepore's father also was accused of witness tampering, and his daughter of perjury.

Prosecutors said the two men accused of starting the fire and Cataldo lied to investigators about the condition of the lounge before the blaze to divert attention from themselves.

Court papers alleged that on July 10, 2001, Lepore "recounted his involvement in the events of the fatal fire in Boland Hall" to his mother and sister, and said he believed his sister would be subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury.

The next day, Lepore's father told his son that he and his daughter intended to "falsely claim" that they never discussed any of the circumstances of the fire with him "other than he got out safely, and to answer any other questions about the fire by claiming ignorance."

$2-Million Bail for Pair

Prosecutors said the indictments followed an extensive investigation that included questioning all 600 dorm residents.

The indictments were unsealed Thursday by New Jersey Superior Court Judge Joseph A. Falcone, who set $2-million bail each for Joseph T. Lepore and Ryan. They could receive from 30 years to life in prison if they are convicted on the murder charge alone. Ryan remains a student at Seton Hall; Lepore transferred to the University of Delaware.

In addition to arson conspiracy, they are also charged with manslaughter, causing or risking widespread injury and aggravated assault.

Since the fire, Seton Hall has installed sprinklers, and New Jersey has passed a law requiring all dormitory rooms to be equipped with sprinklers by 2004.

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